Out with the Old, In with the New – Abu Dhabi’s Old Souk

“We do not give up on the places we love just because we are physically detached from them.” 
– Elif Shafak

I pull the throw over my legs, before I cradle a steaming cup of coffee with both hands. Although spring has arrived in Portugal and the weather is warming up, the mornings still beg for extra warmth over my legs. In these quiet moments between sleep and chores, I indulge in the luxury of allowing my thoughts to travel back to the place where I’ve spent nine years of my life before moving to Portugal, and which will always be part of who I am.

I remember the moment I bought this throw. My niece came to visit us in December 2019 and I took her to the Qasr al Hosn Festival to experience Emirati culture. From there it was a short walk to the World Trade Centre and Souk, where I thought she would be able to pick up some souvenirs. We strolled through an empty Old Souk, where shopkeepers only stirred to life at the sound of our voices. We browsed and engaged in friendly banter, as we stolled from shop to shop. The merchandise mostly repeated themselves, but there was a good variety to make for a pleasurable shopping experience. I’m not keen on haggling, but after a lengthy conversation with a young Pakistani man who recently moved to the city, I bought the throw that regularly brings back memories of a place I, for so many years, called home.

The word souk (souq) always conjures up exotic images in my mind. Filled with the movement, colour, smells and sounds these images belong to a scene plucked straight from one of the tales of A Thousand and One Nights. Perhaps the original central market, built in the 1970s and survived until 2005 came a bit closer to the scene of my imagination than the current sterile space designed by Foster & Partners that houses the shop where I bought the throw. The description on their website creates yet another fantasy:

‘Abu Dhabi’s Central Market is one of the oldest sites in the city. Inspired by the traditional architecture of the Gulf this scheme aims to reinvent the market place, giving the city a new civic heart. By offering an alternative to the globalised one-size-fits-all shopping mall it offers a distinctive modern interpretation of the regional vernacular. As a shopping experience it combines luxury goods boutiques with food markets and craft-based trades. Like the traditional souk, these different experiences are brought together in an interior architecture of dappled sunlight, bright colours and fountains, with a changing rhythm of squares, courtyards and alley ways.’

At the time oil was discovered in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi the only building not made from palm leaves was Qasr al Hosn (Al Hosn Fort), where the ruler and his family lived. The city as it exists today is a reflection of the constant reinvention of the ideals of the people who hold the power to replace what is unsuitable and old with something new and shiny.

The original market (souk) was created in 1972 by the Egyptian townplanner, Abd al Rahman. Also referred to at the time as the Abu Dhabi bazaar the souk was an attempt to help settle the city’s nomadic population into an urban environment, and each tribe was given a quota for shop space within the market by the ruler Sheikh Zayed.

It covered roughly 50,000 square metres and followed the same grid pattern in which the city was laid out. A variety of items were sold from the more or less 700 shops that made up the market. Not only was this the place to shop, but it also drew tourists and travel writers, while the outer edges provided a place for low-income expatriates where they could socialise.  

Johnathan Raban describes it in his 1979 book Arabia – Through the Looking Glass, as follows: “The old market had been torn down long ago and in its place there was a shopping precinct of purple concrete . . . It had lost all the intricacy of a real souk . . . its architect . . . had created a rectangular grid which took its inspiration not from the labyrinth but from the squared pages of arithmetic exercise books. The only good thing that one could say for it as a piece of building was that the concrete was riddled with cracks and it looked as if a few more years of use would turn the place into a cheerful purple ruin.
Instinctive habits are, mercifully, much more powerful than bad architecture; and the residents of the souk were simply ignoring all the architect’s designs on them. They had set up stalls in the walkways and constructed their own labyrinth in spaces which had been meant as routes of access. There were no straight lines to walk down; one had to zigzag through a maze of one-man businesses which were conducted from upturned paking-cases under torn umbrellas. There were repairers of sandals and transitor radios, tailors sitting cross-legged in front of ancient Singer sewing machines, hawkers of clockwork junk and plastic carpets. Men on prayer mats were bent due west to Mecca, reliable in their way as compass needles; and under one umbrella an old man with a mouthful of gold teeth was crouched over the Koran.”

In the 1990s the market was surrounded by high-rise buildings, creating a sharp contrast between the old and new, even when the old market was a mere 20 years old. The chaotic appearance of the market with its many small informal shops did not fit in with the image officials were trying to project of the city, and so it had to go.

In 2002 authorities decided it was time to build a new market. The project was to keep the original layout and was awarded to the Arab Engineering Bureau, with their Abu Dhabi branch, the Al Arabi Engineering Bureau to carry out the design and supervision work. A municipality official at the time said that an attempt would be made to ‘restore life to the heart of Abu Dhabi and resurrect old memories that are being obliterated by rapid changes and modernity’.

But the initial plans were scrapped shortly after, and a competition was held for a larger scheme. Award winning Jordanian architect Rasem Badran’s design, consisting of a five-storey building with an inward oriented three-storey structure, won. This project was in line with Abu Dhabi’s image of being conservative, slow to develop and an avoidance of commercialisation, which stood in stark contrast with Dubai’s approach to development, but once again the project was put on hold.

This time until the city embarked on a new phase of urbanisation after the death of Sheikh Zayed on 2 November 2004. During this time many well-known landmarks, including the GCC roundabout, the Volcano fountain and clock tower, were demolished. The government owned AL DAR replaced the municipality as the principal developer of the central market. The previous plans were cancelled, the design was reworked, and shopkeepers were served eviction notices. The whole project was made even more urgent when a fire destroyed part of the market. Demolition took place on 2 March 2005, and just like that a part of Abu Dhabi’s tentative history came to an abrupt end.  

Rasem Badran was replaced by star architect Norman Foster in 2006, and the once modest project turned into a Dh1.3 billion design including a hotel, luxury shops, apartments, restaurants, offices and a traditional market. The World Trade Centre and Central Souk, completed in 2014, now stands where the old market once bustled with a different kind of life.


# The Evolving Arab City – Tradition, Modernity & Urban Development edited by Yasser Elsheshtawy
    Chapter 10: Cities of Sand and Fog: Abu Dhabi’s Global Ambitions – Yasser Elsheshtawy

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